Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Loss and Gain in the Climate Struggle

I have spent many hours over the last few days at the Harvard divestment protest rallies, and the experience has been an intense one, at times almost too much to bear. On the one hand it is inspiriting to stand with a sizable group of people, listening to speakers, all of whom share an understanding of the magnitude of the crisis we face. So often, among other people, even highly educated and informed ones, this simply isn't the case. On the other hand, though, the sense that this awareness is shared by a small and ineffectual minority is hard to ignore while a powerful university and its self-important members carry on their business as usual, hardly slowing down to notice the ragtag assembly that has kept a few administrators from their offices, but has apparently made no difference at all to the University's plans for investing its immense wealth. To engage with this issue is to immerse oneself in loss--of which more later in this post.

But first, a few vignettes from the protest:

On Wednesday the speakers represented faith communities--Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, seminarians and ministers, visionaries. The most singular speaker was a Pacific Islander, one of the Pacific Climate Warriors who last November used their traditional canoes to blockade the coal port of Newcastle, Australia. This woman related how she had at the age of 40 suddenly found the opportunity to become a mother, agreeing to adopt a baby at birth. The delivery was scheduled for several weeks after the blockade but it arrived early, so this woman was watching her baby's birth by skype while Australian police were brutally clearing her and the other Warriors from the waterway. "The baby looked so calm," she recalled, "while I was bawling." Her husband and mother were there to help with the birth and the baby, and when she told them how sorry she was to be absent, they told her, No, you are just where you need to be, where this baby needs you to be at this moment.

Today felt less dramatic as I joined a 'blockade' of sorts in front of Harvard's administrative building, University Hall. The students who have organized these protests are warriors too, and they have been tireless all week, sleeping outside to maintain their blockade, keeping up a chanting, chatting, orating, giddy presence in Harvard Yard. But the administration has simply reiterated its refusal to negotiate divestment and withdrawn, leaving the students little to push against, while the vast majority of their fellow students and teachers carry on with their routines, visibly indifferent to the whole business. The blockade today was spirited in its way--a delegation from Montreal, who are waging the same struggle at McGill University, brought international solidarity to the picket line and enlivened things a bit--but I couldn't help feeling some sadness, not with the Divest Harvard activists but with their isolation from the main currents of University life. Theirs is a prophetic witness, but it's getting late for prophecy.

Which brings me back to loss. My other absorption this week has been with Dale Jamieson's remarkable book Reason in a Dark Time (2014), a book I learned about from Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker piece and mentioned a few posts ago. Jamieson is an academic philosopher, a rigorous thinker who has set out to explore the question of how and why we human beings have failed so completely, despite all the urgent warning signs, to address the climate change crisis. Not are failing but have failed: the change is upon us, and Jamieson knows better than more casual observers how far we are from any meaningful remedies. There is some sadness, then, in this book, but a certain comfort as well, as he explores the long trajectory of scientific discovery--a path necessarily long, given the complexity of climate and its newness as a science, though disastrously elongated by the deliberate efforts to obfuscate and undermine legitimate research. That too is a predictable consequence of the ignorance, greed, and narrow self-interest that are woven into our human tapestry. I haven't finished Jamieson's book--he promises to suggest some mitigating actions, though no 'solutions' as such--but I find that the effort to examine quite closely all the difficulties embedded in our systems of science, economics, politics and ethics, all the ways we have fallen short even when applying our strongest intellectual tools to this problem, makes it seem less of a debacle, an atrocity, and more of a tragic condition, another dimension to our already tragic and tenuous grip on things. As one of the faith leaders-the Buddhist, I believe it was--encouraged us, we need to address this problem, this crisis, not with anger but with love. I'm trying, and Jamieson's lucid explanations make that easier to do.

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